By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
Germaphobes beware! You may not be able to wash your hands of this movie for quite a while.
Conventional horror films may be scary, but this disaster flick about a mysterious disease is far more eerie and disturbing than any creature feature.
After all, how do you completely avoid contact with germs?
Contagion is a suspense thriller, a medical mystery, and a speculative public service announcement, all in one. It’s about the threat posed by a deadly, highly communicable, airborne, flu-like virus (previously unseen, it’s dubbed MEV-1) that spreads a disease with no cure, kills within hours of the onset of symptoms, and wipes out millions of people, precipitating worldwide panic and international chaos in a matter of days.
Its narrative trajectory, beginning on day two of the global viral epidemic, focuses on the international team of physicians who come to the aid of the Centers for Disease Control to deal with the lethal outbreak.
Matt Damon plays a husband from the midwest, himself immune, whose traveling-businesswoman wife, played by Gwyneth Paltrow, is “patient zero,” one of the first victims claimed by the contagious disease.
Kate Winslet, Laurence Fishburne, and Jennifer Ehle are a Centers for Disease Control doctor, deputy director, and researcher, respectively, racing against time to stem the tide.
Jude Law plays a crusading blogger who suspects a government/ pharmaceutical industry conspiracy and fans the flames of fear even as he proposes an alleged cure, and Marion Cotillard is a dedicated official with the World Health Organization who becomes a pawn in the larger chess game.
Steven Soderbergh — he of the crowded, eclectic résumé (Traffic, Erin Brockovich, Ocean’s Eleven through Thirteen, The Informant) and acting as his own cinematographer (under the name Peter Andrews) — directs with his usual thoughtfulness and flair, employing a dispassionate, maybe even cold-blooded, docudrama style and concentrating more on the procedural details than the particular reactions of victims.
He generates considerable suspense, to be sure, but does so by remaining relatively realistic as he posits the way we might act — and, indeed, have acted — during a pandemic.
As conditions worsen, panic itself becomes contagious, spreading immediately thanks to the ubiquitous Internet and social media, as all kinds of profiteers emerge. The world quickly turns into a kind of anti-social network.
Soderbergh uses his strong ensemble cast — the familiar faces serving as signposts on a unfamiliar roadway — to move us rapidly and efficiently around the planet as he traces the plague, without losing focus on the characters affected in closeup and the doctors fighting on their behalf.
But the sense of dread is palpable and the overall horrific vision is remarkably, chillingly convincing.
The screenplay by Scott Z. Burns, its subject matter recalling 1995’s Outbreak, examines what might happen during a pandemic and sacrifices character depth in the name of the broad canvas.
Despite the astronomical body count, Soderbergh has taken a relatively understated approach to the incendiary material. But when the dust clears, it remains a big-screen melodrama about a worldwide plague for the mainstream audience’s entertainment.
Consequently, expect fans to call it productive preventiveness while detractors dismiss it as fear mongering. And the beat goes on. Let’s just say that creepy images from this film will be popping up in your mind long after you’ve sat through it.
And that the experience of shaking hands, handling credit cards, frequenting salad bars, and overhearing coughs may never be quite the same.
So we’ll spread 3 stars out of 4 for the chilling global-disease disaster thriller, Contagion. Catch it (you should excuse the expression) at a theatre near you.